The reformatted Women’s Six Nations 2021 marked a change of approach for the northern hempishere's leading competition. And it’s better that way, according to Annick Hayraud, because when it comes to taking stock the France coach sees only positives.
“The good thing about the environment is being able to play the tournament at this time of year,” she said.
Usually played at the same time as the men's Championship, in February and March, the women's tournament in 2021 was instead played in April, due to disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was very pleasurable. When the weather is nice, people have more time. It is better, it is more pleasant. We had facilities to ourselves at Marcoussis. We were in optimal comfort and that was greatly appreciated,” she recalls.
In terms of media exposure too, the new timeframe enabled increased coverage of European women's rugby and the matches broadcast on the France 4 network broke records.
And in terms of performance, apart from the fact that it is more pleasant to play in the European spring than its winter, Hayraud considers the results "very good".
“We always have a little trouble starting the competition, but this time it went pretty well,” she said.
A double Le Crunch to finish
“We had some things in place against Wales that we were able to do again against Ireland. Ireland is still a nation which, when you play at home, makes it difficult for us. It had been several years since we last gave them 50 points and yet it was not a weak opposition! On the contrary, I believe that the Irish women have done very well as they prepare to qualify for the Rugby World Cup. We were able to start the match very well and put them under pressure to be able to put our game in place.
“Then concerning the two confrontations with England, we crossed a barrier on our conquest, our scrum. Above all, it was our defence that gave us a lot of satisfaction. We really need to continue on this.”
The calendar had indeed positioned two Le Crunch fixtures in quick succession: one the Women’s Six Nations 2021 final at the Twickenham Stoop (won by England, 10-6), and the second a week later in Villeneuve-d'Ascq as a standalone test match (also won by the Red Roses, 17-15).
“We were able to correct our use of the ball from game to game. We didn’t perform very well in the final where we struggled to find solutions. We had broken several times, but without scoring, while in the second game we broke but we scored. It was very encouraging for the end of the match, even if it did not end in good conditions,” she remarks, referring to the sudden floodlight failure which stopped the match in the 62nd minute.
Crucial preparation for Rugby World Cup
France's tight recent schedule wasn't too dissimilar to the conditions of a Rugby World Cup, which Hayraud is all too aware of. Aside from several injuries, her players held strong against a busy few weeks.
“This is the first time that we have spent six consecutive weeks with the group, and we see that it is indeed paying off,” notes Hayraud. “We still had mental freshness and physical freshness. That is also why it was important for us to play this last game.
“We have to live this type of adventure and not wait for the Rugby World Cup to get into this type of configuration. It will allow us to see how we are able to live long weeks together. We were confined, in our sanitary bubble, without exchanges with family or friends, we only went out for the matches. Some players had not even left the National Rugby Centre, except for the last week. That too is an enrichment, it is a collective adventure.”
Bringing in a new generation
At the start of the campaign, Hayraud's co-coach, Samuel Cherouk, praised the good balance between young players with high potential and the more experienced squad members, with impressive performances from full-back Emilie Boulard, who gained her first cap in the tournament, and the seasoned loose-forward Safi N'Diaye.
“We threw in a few young players that we had with us. They asserted themselves, they played without complex in a tournament. It’s the result of the work we’re doing with the France group,” says Hayraud.
Among them, three stood out in particular: prop Rose Bernadou, second-row Madoussou Fall, who we had already seen in the 2019 Women's Rugby Super Series, and full-back Boulard.
“Rose, we've been asking her for two years, encouraging her to come and do camps with us; I have regular talks with her to take stock at the end of each week of camps because we had detected her potential. Afterwards, we had to manage to have this trigger for work, to get into a high-level dynamic. Madoussou had already shown what she can do in the Super Series.
“And as far as Emilie Boulard is concerned, that only confirms what we thought of her, because if it had been a surprise we wouldn't have started her. Like other players who have not had any playing time but have been with us throughout the preparation, they are still a long way from achieving all they can bring to the team.”
Photo: France Rugby